No protective equipment is more important than the lives of healthcare workers, a nursing union has said, after ministers said it should be treated as a “precious resource”.
British Health Secretary Matt Hancock had said there is enough personal protective equipment (PPE) to go round if it is used in line with official guidance, and his goal is that “everyone” working in a critical role gets what they need.
But the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) dismissed any suggestions that healthcare staff were “abusing or overusing” PPE.
RCN general secretary Donna Kinnair told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Saturday that no PPE was “more precious a resource than a healthcare worker’s life, a nurse’s life, a doctor’s life”.
Speaking later on BBC Breakfast Ms Kinnair said that every day she was hearing from nurses saying they did not have enough protective equipment.
Ms Kinnair added: “I take offence actually that we are saying that healthcare workers are abusing or overusing PPE.
“I think what we know is, we don’t have enough supply and not enough regular supply of PPE.
“This is the number one priority nurses are bringing to my attention, that they do not have adequate supply of protective equipment.”
The BMA medical union warned on Friday that PPE supplies in London and Yorkshire are at “dangerously low levels”.
New UK Labour leader Keir Starmer said on social media that it was “insulting” to imply frontline staff were wasting PPE.
He added: “It is quite frankly insulting to imply frontline staff are wasting PPE.
“There are horrific stories of NHS staff and care workers not having the equipment they need to keep them safe.
“The Government must act to ensure supplies are delivered.”
Mr Hancock acknowledged distributing masks, gloves, aprons and hand sanitiser to frontline workers is requiring a “Herculean logistical effort”.
He told BBC Breakfast on Saturday it was important that healthcare workers use the “right amount” of protective equipment.
He added: “I am not impugning anyone who works for the NHS and I think they do an amazing job.
It is quite frankly insulting to imply frontline staff are wasting PPE.
There are horrific stories of NHS staff and care workers not having the equipment they need to keep them safe.
The Government must act to ensure supplies are delivered. https://t.co/kQWbiO0zoh— Keir Starmer (@Keir_Starmer) April 11, 2020
“But what I am reiterating, stressing, is the importance to use the right amount of PPE both to have enough and also to use it as the precious resource that it is.”
Mr Hancock also dismissed reports that he was not following social distancing rules, following a report in the Health Service Journal that video conferencing images seen by the publication showed him “surrounded by 10 and 20 colleagues at times”.
Asked if that was the case, on the Today programme, he said: “No, not since the social distancing rules came in.”
The row comes as the government is urging the public to stay at home over Easter, after the UK recorded its highest daily death toll from coronavirus since the outbreak began.
The latest figures from the Department of Health and Social Care showed that as of Thursday there were 8,958 hospital deaths from the disease – an increase of 980 on the previous day.
Mr Hancock also said on Saturday that 19 NHS workers have died from coronavirus.
He said: “My heart goes out to their families, these are people who have put themselves on the front line.
“I’m particularly struck at the high proportion of people from minority ethnic backgrounds and people who have come to this country to work in the NHS who have died of coronavirus.
“I find it really upsetting actually and it is a testament to the fact that people who have come from all over the world have come and given their lives in service to the NHS and paid for that with their lives.”
A British scientist has said that a vaccine to coronavirus could be ready as soon as September.
Sarah Gilbert, professor of vaccinology at Oxford University, told The Times on Saturday that she was “80% confident” that the vaccine being developed by her team would work, with human trials due to begin in the next fortnight.
She said: “I think there’s a high chance that it will work based on other things that we have done with this type of vaccine.
“It’s not just a hunch and as every week goes by we have more data to look at… I would go for 80%, that’s my personal view.”
The Government is urging people to stay at home over Easter amid fears that with continuing good weather forecast, people would flock to parks and beaches and undermine its social distancing strategy.
Mr Hancock acknowledged the warm weather conditions but said it was too early to lift the social distancing measures.
He said: “We are just starting to see the curve flatten, we are just starting to see the number of new arrivals at hospital with coronavirus flatten.
“It’s too early to lift the measures and people need to stay at home.”
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson was continuing to recover following his discharge from the intensive care unit at St Thomas’ Hospital where he has been receiving treatment for coronavirus.
The British Prime Minister was said to be able do “short walks” between rests, although Downing Street refused to be drawn on how long he was expected to remain in hospital.
With the government due to carry out the first three-week review of the lockdown measures next week, ministers are facing calls to explain how the restrictions will ultimately be lifted.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who is deputising for Mr Johnson, has said the government’s scientific advisory group for emergencies (Sage) would be studying the evidence but they would not be able to say more until the end of the week.
Downing Street declined to comment on reports in The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail that while ministers hoped restrictions such as the closure of schools and shops could lifted in early June, other social distancing measures might have to remain, potentially indefinitely or until a vaccine is found.
However, speaking at the No 10 press conference, the deputy chief medical officer for England, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, warned it was “premature” to think the outbreak had reached its peak.
While he said there were signs the “curve is bending” in terms of hospital admissions, he said it was still too soon to start lifting the lockdown.
“We are in a dangerous phase still,” he said. “It’s premature to say we are at a peak and the push we are making with social distancing just has to continue.”
Rehana Azam, GMB national officer, said the number of deaths of NHS workers was “beyond heartbreaking”, adding: “Each of these frontline workers’ sacrifice to our NHS family must never be forgotten.
“Now this dark truth has been dragged out, we also need to know the number of other frontline workers, including in our care homes, who have died in the call of duty.
“This shows why the Government’s broken promises on proper protective equipment matter – it has exposed workers to increased risk. We urgently need to see ministers fulfil their obligations to provide PPE to the frontline.
“PPE is not just a precious resource, it is an absolute necessity to protect lives. GMB is deeply concerned about any inference that NHS workers are responsible for the failures of Government to properly protect our protectors.”